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For the week of Jan. 19 through Jan. 25, 2000

Factoring tradition and character into the development equation

Commentary by PAT MURPHY

A new strategy is being tried in the growing struggle throughout the booming western United States to limit explosive growth. Now, citizens are demanding that politicians and local planners consider a community's "tradition" and "character" before approving new projects.

It's controversial. A major court test is almost certain, since property owners believe restrictions on their rights to build amount to taking away property without proper compensation.

In three communities that couldn't be more disparate, severe new restrictions recently have been imposed or are being debated.

In Aspen (a mountain playground resort), San Jose (the world capital of high-tech computer engineering) and Santa Monica (a blend of California cosmopolitan and Left Coast social engineering), city officials are targeting, among other things, what they call "monster" homes for prohibition. However, one family's "monster" home is another's dream house. And therein lies the clash that'll make lawyers on both sides wealthy.

In Santa Monica, for example, old, small homes dating back to the pre-World War II war years are being bought, leveled and replaced with enormous multi-story dwellings on the same small lots. Critics complain views are being restricted, and "character" and "traditions" of the community are being ignored.

In Aspen, it's not only "monster" homes but also other new structures that block mountain views. The Wood River Valley should pay attention. We're due for an outbreak of such criticism.

"Monster" homes have become standard in estate areas of Ketchum and Sun Valley as well as in unincorporated areas of Blaine County. And now, small dwellings that've been part of the character and history of Ketchum are vanishing, replaced by large commercial buildings.

Only a few weeks ago, the Community School's pre-school branch at 7th Street and Washington went on the market, the 11,000 square feet probably destined for a large office building to replace the quaint wooden schoolhouse. Partly responsible for this ravage is Idaho's insane taxing system that makes it almost impossible for small dwellings to survive. Speculators with pocketsful of cash step in and build for profit. But what of "tradition" and "character" that are victims of growth?

On page 48 of Ketchum's tidy and meticulous planning and zoning manual, tradition and character are specifically listed as criteria for approval of new construction.

"New development," it reads, "should be sensitive to the historic context from which Ketchum has evolved. Building design should be reflective of the mining, ranching, alpine and railroad influence on the community."

And finally:

"New development should be responsive to the fact that Ketchum is a small town located in a mountain environment. The building design, site design and architectural features in new development should ‘fit' into the natural surroundings."

Are Ketchum's city fathers enforcing this philosophy when they approve new projects? Look around and decide for yourself.

My advice, however, is to get out the family camera and shoot pictures fast of Ketchum as it is today for the grandkids.

The town character that supposedly is to be protected and preserved is vanishing before our eyes.

Pat Murphy is the retired publisher of the Arizona Republic and a former radio comentator.


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